When Europe opened its borders to Syrian and other refugees in 2015, Tímea Kovács was at the front line. At night, she was at the Szeged railway station, just inside Hungary’s border with Serbia, meeting with refugees anxious to learn the steps required to seek asylum. The next morning, she’d be in the immigration office and the courtroom, representing scores of asylum seekers each day. “She was hardly able to sleep more than three or four hours a day,” says Erno Simon, Hungary spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who was working with the new arrivals in the border city then and couldn’t go anywhere without running into Kovács.
In other words, she’s exactly the kind of person who Hungary’s increasingly nativist government had in mind when it drafted its latest “Stop Soros” anti-immigration law.
While that Hungarian point of entry was ground zero for a refugee crisis that’s since added up to some 3 million asylum claims in the European Union, it was also the flash point for another phenomenon: an anti-immigrant, populist fervor across the Continent, shaking political foundations from London, where posters of non-White throngs helped inspire Brexit voters, to Berlin, where a far-right party has already induced a harder line on immigration while disrupting the political establishment.
If you open your mind, if you open your mouth, it means that they will attack you.
Nowhere has that wave broken harder than in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has cast himself as the protector of his nation against a foreign threat. But stopping immigration with a razor-wire fence and a quota of two asylum seekers per day wasn’t enough. The government is now gearing up to enforce its “Stop Soros” legislation, aimed at Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, whose funding of progressive causes has made him hard-line conservatives’ favorite villain on both sides of the Atlantic.
In decades past, Hungarians celebrated Soros’ Open Society NGO for building the nation’s democratic and cultural institutions, but now Orbán and his Fidesz party accuse it of promoting “open borders” and flooding the nation with dangerous migrants. As Kovács observes, it’s as if the nation has no other problems: All the largely government-friendly media reports on is “Soros and Soros and Soros and migrants and migrants and migrants.” Her work is supported by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which got a third of its 2016 funding from Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
Proponents of the eponymous legislation, which passed in June, simply want to stop illegal migration, says government spokesman Zoltán Kovács (no relation to Tímea). The law would only apply, he says, when “someone is actively giving the advice on how to avoid the authorities at the border” or “tricking the system by misleading or providing false data.”
Broadly interpreted, that could describe what immigration lawyers often do for clients, so critics fear people like Tímea Kovács could end up in the “Stop Soros” net. “It’s more about silencing the voice,” says Veszna Wessanauer, an analyst for the Political Capital Institute think tank in Budapest. And while Kovács’ legal activities — with migration now severely restricted — may not have much impact, her public advocacy on behalf of immigrants is another matter.
Such pushback doesn’t seem to bother the 45-year-old second-generation lawyer. In high school, she aspired to run her own beauty salon — something her father said she could choose after studying law or medicine. During her legal studies, she became interested in the rights of prisoners, which got her in touch with rights groups that also advocated for refugees. Just a young woman when communist rule ended, Kovács understood that back then, there were topics Hungarians weren’t allowed to talk about. “Now in Hungary, it is the same. If you open your mind, if you open your mouth, it means that they will attack you.”
The political attacks have accelerated on NGOs, including the Helsinki Committee, and her own legal work since Orbán’s successful re-election campaign this spring. Yet Kovács remains defiant, asking, “What if I would care about this news? How would it help me?”
As an aspiring attorney, specializing in immigration interested Kovács partly for its complexity, because it dealt with evolving European law, rather than straightforward criminal acts. And there was the need, she adds: “In the beginning, I recognized that there are not too many people who are lawyers who work with refugees.”
Now there are worries that her chosen vocation could make her a target of the new law, particularly given her prominence in the media. The vaguely worded law with penalties of up to a year in prison, Wessanauer says, “is a very arbitrary tool.”
Immigration could be just the start. With actual migration down to a trickle, “they will probably need to look for other types of enemies,” Wessanauer says. Before the refugee crisis, she notes, the ruling party reversed a decline in approval ratings by promising to battle threats to security and erosion of the country’s Christian values. Such fears are unfounded, says government spokesman Zoltán Kovács, who maintains that simply providing legal representation would not run afoul of the law.
For her part, Kovács is wary of how she communicates and prefers in-person meetings. That’s not surprising since Politico reported in July that the government hired an Israeli firm to contact NGO staff — especially those associated with Soros — and recorded conversations that were later used by Orbán in the final days of April’s election campaign to discredit the groups.
Despite government attempts to isolate them, refugees seem to know what to do when they arrive at one of two “transit centers” Hungary set up to deal with migration on its southern border. “They hear about it in Serbia, from NGOs … when they come into the transit zones, they might hear about her,” explains Simon of UNHCR, who says Kovács’ business card is “one of the most important [pieces of] information for asylum seekers coming to Hungary.”
Kovács also worries about her fellow countrymen, indoctrinated by a constant barrage of anti-immigrant rhetoric. It can often lead to questions about her chosen line of work — questions she’s happy to answer.
“What I try to explain,” she says, “is you can become a refugee anytime, and you have human rights.” That’s something many Hungarians learned the hard way after 1956, when Soviet tanks crushed the nation’s historic uprising. “That’s what I try to point out: It could happen to anyone.”
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